How to be Both

How to be Both by Ali Smith

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By Ali Smith

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12 reviews

How to Be Both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real – and all life’s givens get given a second chance.


19 Sep 2020


I adore Ali Smith's Seasonal Quartet, as well as Girl Meets Boy, and she's one of my all time favourite authors but somehow I'd never read her Women's Prize winning novel, so this was the book on the backlist of Women's Prize winner's that I was most excited about.

It is a truly unique and highly experimental novel, and it is very easy to see where the Seasonal quartet came from. This novel explores some big themes - identity, grief, sexuality, amongst others, all through two figures, one teenager in contemporary times and one in Renaissance England. It certainly is a novel of two halves in this respect - the contemporary half is very readable and fast paced, while the half set in the Renaissance is much more fluid, meta and experimental in style.

As it was published in two versions which alternated the order of the sections, it could provide two entirely different reading experiences. My version began with George's story in the modern day, which may have made the second half feel a bit more difficult to read. However, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book, particularly the way Smith weaves in references to art and the way she explores huge themes through a very personal lens.

This book has layer upon layer and will keep you thinking and deciphering for hours and days if not weeks after you finish. I do feel like I've been spoilt by her subsequent work which is even more impressive, however if you are an Ali Smith fan, then this is a must read.

06 Sep 2020


I read this as part of the 25 years of The Women's Prize for Fiction.

How to be Both is written in two separate sections - 'camera' which tells the modern day story of George, a teenager whose life changes drastically when their mother dies, and 'eyes', the story of 1460s Renaissance artist Francescho del Cossa, a famous but enigmatic painter. The book was published in two different formats - some with George's section first, and others with Fracescho's first - each one offering a slightly different perspective on the story. My copy had George's story first.

I found George's story moving, and I liked the way the author played with the theme of identity, both in George being rather ambiguous as a person, and also in her struggling to figure out who she is after her significant bereavement. However, I didn't find that Francescho's story held my attention in the same way - it was very abstract and odd, and at times a little boring. I did like the mirroring between the two stories though.

The huge issue I had with this, and the reason for the low rating, was that I really struggled with the writing style. It is very unorthodox and I personally found it very hard work to read - not something that I would usually have read at all. I know some people absolutely loved it, but it was really not my cup of tea unfortunately.

06 Sep 2020

Sonia Porritt

How to be both is a collection of 2 stories, intertwined with themes of time and identity. It is a clever, original and ambitious book. That is has been published some books with the modern story first and others with the renaissance story first is intriguing and imaginative.

I read the modern story first and loved it. The depiction of grief was great, and the characters rounded and engaging. I was sad to end this story and initially hoped I could return to it (before realising the structure of the book). I want to know more about George and how that developed. The idea of time and memory, is well written and I liked the narrative.

The painter story I found a little jarring to George’s story, and found it difficult to engage with. I liked the idea of it but could not engage with the stream of consciousness.

I loved the meaning of the front cover (explored in George’s story) and the paintings in the inlay. I enjoyed that it gave me a physical connection with the characters. There is a lot to love about this book, however overall it just did not ‘click’ with me as it was perhaps intended. I wonder if I’d read the Renaissance story first how I would have felt about the book. Therein lies the theme of time and one experience connecting to an influencing the other. Once you have seen or heard an event it cannot be undone, which is a superb concept.

06 Sep 2020


Read with Book and Brew as part of the Reading Women Challenge for The Womens' Prize For Fiction 25th Anniversary. I enjoyed the contemporary section of this book and very much appreciate the writing style but found the renaissance half of this story more problematic to follow.

16 Aug 2020


I would give this novel 2.5 stars overall, though would have rated one story 3.5 and the other 2 stars if I’d rated them separately. I enjoyed the first of the two stories better than the other (my version had George, the modern story first), and struggled with the writing style more during the second half (Francesco’s story). Ali Smith’s writing style is fairly unique, and both tales are written in stream of consciousness and it can make it difficult to follow at times. I enjoyed George’s story and felt it tapered off as it was getting really interesting. I didn’t ‘get’ what others have picked up in reviews about the story mirroring in both halves. Perhaps it was just over my head. Glad I read this though, and would definitely read more by Ali Smith as I do enjoy her writing.

28 Jul 2020


I really appreciate the artistry of Ali Smith's writing but don't always enjoy the experience of reading it.

This book is full of poignant insights into how we craft our own identities, and it challenges literary norms of structure, form and chronology.

It is witty and emotional but its style was a bit too frenzied for me.

27 May 2015

From Terri in the V-60 Book Group"

Ali Smith's 'How to Be Both' is a book full of dualities. The novel contains two separate (but interlinked) stories, written from two different points of view, set in two different time periods -- and the order of the stories changes depending on which copy of the novel you pick up. (In my copy, the Renaissance story came first, followed by the contemporary tale...a sequence that worked just fine.)

My response to the novel was full of dualities as well: I loved it and I was infuriated by it, my opinion changing back and forth, over and over, as I read. Smith's writing, at its best, is stunning (particularly in the Renaissance section), and yet her prose in other portions of the book (largely in the modern section) seemed slap-dash and rushed, the secondary characters and story structure not entirely thought through. My opinion of the book changed so often, and so dramatically, as I progressed through its pages that I was left with a kind of emotional whiplash by the time I put it down.

Things about the book I loved: Smith's evocation of the lives of women artists, historical and contemporary. (Her brief nod to Ida John and Edna Clarke Hall made me want to stand up and cheer.) Her portrayal of love and friendship between women, between women and men, between parents and children, between siblings. Her smart and verbally adroit main characters.

And yet I still don't know quite what to make of this book. Parts of Smith's novel are positively brilliant (I'm not using the word lightly), yet it doesn't quite hang together as a whole. I have rarely been so infuriated by a book! Her work reminds me of Jeanette Winterson's, and even of Virginia Woolf's -- without either writers' finely honed control, but with a sly, mischievous energy of her own. I loved this book; and I hated it. I think it's gorgeous; and I think it's half-baked. I don't think it should win the Bailey Prize; and I'm awfully glad I read it because of the Prize.

"Smith has pushed me way out of my comfort zone as a reader, and challenged my ideas of what a novel should be. Her book has exhilarated me and disappointed me. And I'm going to have to read it again.

26 May 2015

I'm one of the Wine, Women and Words fence sitters on this one. Some elements of it I really enjoyed - the descriptions of George's very raw pain and grief after the death of her mother, Francesco's very necessary subterfuge to succeed in the male dominated (off the canvas) Renaissance and the links between life 500 years ago and life now, it really wasn't that different. Some parts though left me feeling it was just trying a bit too hard. Being consistently interesting to the reader and challenging, not always easy to be both.

26 May 2015


I have just finished reading this book along with the rest of my reading group 'Wine, Women and Words'. As a group we had mixed feelings about the book with three of us loving it, four sitting on the fence and two really not enjoying it. I was one of those who loved it.

It is a very clever book with only two chapters, both called chapter one. The order in which the chapters are read is dependent upon the copy of the book picked up. One chapter is the story of Francesco del Cossa, a little know Italian Renaissance artist and the other the contemporary story of George, a teenage girl whose mother has recently died. The two stories are bound together on one level by Francesco's frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy, but on another by both the superficiality and complexities of our existence and place in time. The story bounces between the characters past, present and in Francesco's case the future where he/she looks into George's modern world with some confusion.

The order in which the chapters are read no doubt make a difference to how the book is viewed by the reader, with my eureka moment only coming three quarters of the way through. This was not an easy read but I found the book explored some fascinating themes around sexuality, equality and our relationship with the past and other people which all sucked me in. Definitely worthy of its place on the Bailey's Prize 2015 shortlist in my opinion.

26 May 2015


I’ve just finished reading Ali Smith’s ‘How to be both’, as shortlisted by the Baileys Women’s prize for fiction 2015 and I must say, (never trust Amazon reviews) I was expecting to hate it. Whilst I concede it is a ‘marmite’ book; I loved it. You may hate it and may find it pretentious, but I loved the intellectual challenge it provided and would argue firstly that the description of Renaissance art was so down to earth that it was one of the things I loved about it. Indeed, I remember going to the National Gallery last week to see one of the paintings mentioned in the book and mocking some of parts of the art, only be pleasantly surprised by George as she states, “The duck looks really surprised, like its saying what the f___” and Franchesco who paints the Duke’s horse with extra big balls. (Like a Medieval equivalent of a Ferrari penis extension or something)

Ok I had to read the first few pages of Franchesco’s entry twice, but eventually I think I understood what it was about. If indeed it is meant to be understood. George would just tell me that I needed to see symbolism in everything I see.

Certainly, Ali Smith has left many questions unanswered and there is definitely a philosophical element to the book but I enjoyed that too. The dual narrative is original and brilliant and the main characters are witty, audacious, intelligent, sardonic and feminist and for these reasons so likeable.
Lastly, on a personal note, having studied the Italian Renaissance and lived in Italy, I loved that Ali Smith transported me back there. This book rekindled my love of words, grammar, art and history. It’s a worthy member of the Baileys Women’s prize shortlist and I certainly can’t wait to read the rest.

21 May 2015

Becky U

“How to be both” – first impressions. I’m about 30 pages in and have to say that I’m struggling to understand what’s happening. It feels like a poem rather than a novel. It jumps, its disjointed and unclear. It also doesn’t have speech marks which I find annoying. However, I think I’m starting to get the hang of it. I think its going to be one of those books where you’re not really supposed to follow exactly what’s going on. - Jenny

I liked “How to be both” – but I wasn’t blown away by it. I can see why its won so many awards. It’s a very clever book that tries very hard. There are parts of it, when the story shines through, that I really liked – but then it drifts away or jumps, and then jumps again and you find yourself a bit lost. Its not a book I would recommend to my friends but it’s a book I’m glad I stuck with and finished. I was expecting the links between the two stories to have more ‘wow’ factor but they didn’t. I’m not sure if I would have liked it better if I’d received a version that started with George’s story. - Jenny's update

A 3 word review:
At first I thought of
"Coming of ages"
"How art endures!"
just occurred to me the French phrase could sum it up well
Plus ca change
I loved the book, so colourful, so inventive! It teases, makes you think. It's moving and fascinating and complex. I found myself flicking back frequently to check references through the two different stories, how they link up - and not being irritated but enjoying that! I will definitely re-read at another point, and perhaps back to front? The characters leapt off the page (and off the fresco). Not sure I've fathomed out what the title means. How to be alive and dead? Mediaeval and 21st century? Artist and subject?

Houghton Reading Group

06 May 2015

Brilliant read. Creates another world filled with interesting characters to connect with... in this and the 15th century. Starts a journey that may end up in Italy - or in Cambridge or both... no spoilers here! loved it, loved it. Highly recommeded.

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